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Plagiarism on standardized tests three times higher in New Orleans schools than rest of Louisiana

New Orleans schools continue to have a higher rate of plagiarism on standardized tests compared to the rest of the state, but they have addressed the problem of suspicious erasures.

In 2012 and 2013 — the last two complete testing years — the percentage of tests voided for plagiarism was three times higher in New Orleans than elsewhere in Louisiana. But that’s fewer than three dozen tests out of 30,000 administered in the city.

In the category of suspicious answer changes, the news is much more positive. In 2012, the percentage of tests voided in New Orleans for a suspicious number of changed answers was twice as high as the state average. In 2013, not a single test in New Orleans was flagged for this form of cheating.

Overall, less than 0.1 percent of the city’s tests were voided for either of these problems in 2012 and 2013.

While New Orleans seems to have curbed its erasure problem, our examination raises the question: Why are more tests voided for plagiarism in New Orleans?

One factor is that the pressure to succeed — felt by both teachers and students — is greater in reform-minded cities like New Orleans, which is touted nationally as a success story by charter school proponents.

The other side of the problem is that big-city schools are likely to have a larger proportion of low scorers, according to Priscilla Wohlstetter, a Columbia University professor and senior research fellow at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. New Orleans schools have had a long track record of inadequate scores, though performance has improved since the state took over the city’s failing schools — a majority at the time — after Hurricane Katrina.

Brian Beabout, an education professor at the University of New Orleans who taught in the city’s public schools before Katrina, said he isn’t sure why the plagiarism rate is higher here than in the rest of Louisiana. But in general, he doesn’t think cheating is rampant in Orleans public schools.

“Has cheating on the test run amok? I don’t think so,” he said.

New Orleans schools an outlier

State standardized tests, largely administered over several weeks in the spring, assess student progress from year to year. Students can be held back a grade or denied graduation if they don’t pass. The tests are equally important for teachers, who can be fired if students consistently underperform.

The importance of these tests has necessitated meticulous test security measures.

Suspicious answer changes, discovered through what’s called erasure analysis, are a key barometer of cheating; plagiarism is another. The department’s vendor scans tests and looks for improbable patterns of erasures and plagiarism that signal cheating.

Though these are not the only ways the Louisiana Department of Education identifies apparent cheating, they are the most objective.

The Lens’ examination of the 2012 and 2013 testing data follows our examination of 2011 tests. That investigation showed that New Orleans had twice the rate of testing problems as other Louisiana school systems.

Our most recent look, using a new method, shows that the rate of plagiarism in New Orleans is three times higher than the rest of the state.

But the number of voided tests is still low. In 2012, 24 tests at six New Orleans schools were voided. The next year, 32 tests at 11 schools were voided.

Compared to the 30,000 tests taken each year, that works out to a plagiarism rate of 0.07 percent in 2012 and 0.09 percent in 2013.

In 2012, seven tests were voided at two schools for erasures — .04 percent of the 20,000 or so tests that underwent erasure analysis.

The Lens shared these figures with the state Department of Education this week but didn’t hear back before publication.

Proctoring errors are another lapse that can lead to tests being voided by the state. They range in severity, from a teacher reading aloud the wrong test instructions to outright coaching of a student. Either error would be flagged as a violation of testing rules.

Since many such errors are self-reported, school officials and testing experts say they are a sign of a district’s diligence in rooting out cheating rather than an objective measure of how many teachers messed up.

In 2012, proctoring errors were the reason that the state voided 21 tests at 11 New Orleans schools. In 2013, proctoring errors led the state to void 44 tests at eight schools.

In 2013, the percentage of proctoring errors in Orleans was twice as high as the statewide average and of Jefferson Parish schools.

Method adjusted for analyzing results

For this analysis, The Lens used a different method to calculate the rate of erasures and plagiarism. Last year, we calculated the percentage of schools that had tests flagged for erasures and plagiarism. This time we calculated the percentage of tests taken.

State education officials had disputed last year’s methodology because a school with one test voided for erasure or plagiarism was weighed the same as a school with dozens. However, three testing experts had deemed our methodology sound as long as we compared the same types of data.

The new way of measuring testing problems didn’t yield a substantially different outcome.

Comparisons with Jefferson Parish were also consistent. In 2012 and 2013, Jefferson was on par with the statewide rate of plagiarism. It was in 2011, too, under our prior method.

Jefferson, though, had a higher rate of erasures than the rest of the state in 2012 — with 11 of 20,000 tests thrown out, that was three times the state rate. In 2013, Jefferson, like Orleans, remedied the problem, with no tests voided by the state because of excessive erasures.

Jefferson Parish conducts regular security training for public school test coordinators and administrators and updates its practices based on the previous year’s testing issues, spokeswoman Tina Chong said.

Repeat offenders

Along with statewide and parish-to-parish comparisons, The Lens also looked at how many Orleans schools had repeated problems over multiple years.

State officials have voided 26 tests at O.P. Walker Senior High School over the past four years, mostly for plagiarism. Walker has since merged with L.B. Landry; the combined school is run by the Algiers Charter School Association.

Asked about past problems at Walker, Algiers Charter Schools CEO Adrian Morgan told Times-Picayune in January that he couldn’t speak to what happened before he stepped into his position in 2012. He said the organization is “committed to having zero errors this year.”

At G.W. Carver Senior High School, 21 tests have been voided in three years. Those were for various proctoring errors that were mostly reported to the state by the Recovery School District.

Lessons in cheating prevention

Like Jefferson Parish, New Orleans schools take pains to administer tests properly and curtail cheating. Cay Kimbrell, the RSD’s external affairs chief, has said that the district trains each of its teachers in test administration annually according to the state’s rules.

No tests have been thrown out at Success Preparatory Academy in four years. School Director Niloy Gangopadhyay said he’s confident the school can keep it up.

“We’ve had a variety of trainings. We have testing coordinators, we have backup testing coordinators,” Gangopadhyay said, explaining the school’s testing regimen.

At a two-and-a-half-hour training session this spring, Success Prep teachers gathered in the school’s library and went over the state test security manual in detail. It’s common for teachers to bring the manual home the week before testing.

Staff also have a “covering party” shortly before the tests are administered: Teachers cover all the instructional material on classroom walls and hallways so students can’t look at them during the tests.

John Fremer, the president of Caveon Consulting Services and co-founder of a leading cheating-detection firm, Caveon Test Security, has not worked with Success Prep. But he said its approach, as described by The Lens, sounds like it would work.

No matter how rigorous the test security measures may be, though, “some cheating is inevitable,” he conceded.

“You want it to be well below 1 percent” of tests voided, Fremer said. “But I don’t think you can realistically get it to be zero all the time.”

New Orleans schools with testing problems in 2012 and 2013

2012 (plagiarism and erasures)

  • Alice M. Harte Charter School: Plagiarism

  • McDonogh 35 Senior High School: Plagiarism

  • The Alternative Learning Institute, which teaches incarcerated students: Plagiarism

  • Architecture, Design and Engineering High School (now McDonogh 35 Career Academy): Plagiarism

  • O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School: Plagiarism

  • Walter L. Cohen High School: Plagiarism

  • Paul Habans Elementary School (now under charter management): Erasures

  • L.B. Landry High School: Erasures

2013 (all plagiarism)

  • Eleanor McMain Secondary School

  • Warren Easton Charter High School

  • O.P. Walker Senior High School

  • Walter L. Cohen High School

  • L.B. Landry High School

  • William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy

  • International High School of New Orleans

  • Sarah T. Reed High School

  • McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School

  • John McDonogh Senior High School

  • Sophie B. Wright Charter School
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  • Louis Kruger

    One of the biggest problems in public education is an overreliance on standardized tests. For an inspiring video on how teachers can
    successfully say ‘no’ to the misuse of standardized tests, please see ‘Jesse’s
    Journey’ on YouTube: